COVID-19 and other such coronaviruses likely will stay in the environment and continue to mutate, said Army Lt. Gen. Ronald J. Place, Defense Health Agency director.
"And we're going to have to deal with it," he told participants Aug. 4 at the Sea-Air-Space Exposition at National Harbor, Maryland, on the topic of the COVID-19 response and post-pandemic national security.
The United States is in an "OK place, but not a great place," at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, adding, "I think one of the things that many of us believe — which is a fallacy — is that COVID-19 is going to go away. It's not going away, just like influenza is not going away. And the thing about many viruses is they tend to mutate, and they tend to do things that keep them alive."
One of the things people should feel comfortable with is the Defense Department medical team has insatiable curiosity, he told the audience, adding that medical research is a continuous process of improvement.
Place said the first order of illness always calls for prevention, followed by diagnosis.
"We're interested in taking care of everybody — service members, family members, retirees — but the Military Health System exists for the military," the general said. "That's our purpose. And so we think about service members and what we can do to keep them healthy … what piece of gear, what piece of anything can we use to prevent anything bad from happening to them? It can be something infectious such as a cold, or an emerging injury."
Looking at COVID-19 from a military scientific perspective, it is a biological event, he said. And the COVID-19 vaccine should be considered biological body armor.
However, the general said, "Tens of thousands of Americans die every year from influenza, and while most of us in the uniformed services get vaccinated, most Americans actually don't. That's a problem for us."
The reason the United States has such a suite of good vaccines "isn't because that magical thinking happened by some manufacturers in the spring of 2020," Place said. "This is research based on years, in some cases, and more than a decade of research on how to take the vaccination methodology to a new level."
There are huge improvements in the way we're looking at how vaccines work, he said. "And I believe we will get to a place where we're not talking about COVID all the time." He warned, however, that getting that peace of mind probably won't happen this year.
"We will get to a place where it's going to be another infectious disease that we worry about, or we think about — much like influenza, measles or tetanus" where people get vaccinations to ward off diseases, Place said. "It's going to be part of our reality for a long time."